By Chazan Rebecca Blumenfeld
“When all these things befall you, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take them to heart (v’hashevota)…and you return (shavta) to the Lord your God…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes (shav shevut) and take you back in love…” (Deut. 30:1-3)
Parashat Nitzavim, read on the shabbat before the Ten Days of Penitence, is deliberately placed here in the calendrical cycle to remind us of some fundamental themes of the Yamim Nora’im. The key vocabulary in these first three verses stems from the Hebrew root shuv meaning ‘turn’ or ‘return’. Indeed, in the first ten verses of this chapter it appears seven times, in a variety of grammatical forms, referring both to us and to God in a chiastic pattern. Essentially, the Torah teaches us that if we strive to return to God, then God will return to us.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we are asked to inhabit a reflective state of mind. We examine our past deeds, apologise to those we have wronged and resolve to do better. We ask God to forgive us. If we are successful, we are promised a place in the book of life as a sign of God’s love.
But throughout our lives we are faced with many challenges to our faith, both personal and universal, and we become disconsolate. The bad things keep coming, the personal goals feel never-ending and the ‘book of life’ hardly seems worth striving. As Kohelet teaches: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, and so we feel dispirited.
On the phrase ‘blessing and curse’, the Etz Hayyim Chumash says: ‘there is no calamity that does not have a kernel of blessing concealed within it’. While this sentiment can feel rather disingenuous, I have found myself taking a tiny measure of comfort from this maxim. No life is entirely without suffering but, in the end, it is not the suffering itself that defines us, but rather our reaction to it. We can either let it consume us or we can stand up and fight it.
So it is with our desire to return to God every year. We may easily feel discouraged but Nitzavim (‘we stand’) comes at exactly this time to remind us that we must stand up and fight this world-weary feeling. When Miriam stood by the river to see what would happen to her brother Moses, the Torah says ‘vatetatzav Miriam’ (Ex. 2:4). J. H. Hertz comments that Miriam ‘took her stand’ not just ‘stood’. Vatetatzav and Nitzavim come from the same root meaning ‘firmly planted, unshakable, committed’. It is always a commitment to have the courage to forge a relationship with G-d, a commitment that needs to be reaffirmed over and over. Just as Miriam did not just stand idly by, we may not stand by simply watching the unfolding of our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Instead, every year, we ‘take a stand’. We try to see ourselves firmly planted, eager and brave before God, so that we feel strong enough to face the year ahead.
I pray that, despite the daunting nature of our lives, we are able to infuse the year 5780 with God-centric actions, with Jewish wisdom and with lovingkindness. May we be strong enough to “bring to life the spiritual covenant that, introduced at Sinai and reaffirmed in Nitzavim, has been engraved…on our hearts.” (The Women’s Torah Commentary pp.382-383) By doing so, may we merit a place in the Book of Life and a reprieve, however brief, from the doldrums of our daily existence.
Chazan Rebecca Blumenfeld is a member of the Oxford Masorti Group